Your New Way to Wildlife

vce-landing-pageHere’s one more reason to go online before going outside. My pals at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) today launched a new web site that features breaking news about birds, insects, amphibians and other wildlife here in Vermont and around the world.

VCE’s “Newsfeed” is designed to highlight pioneering wildlife research and to inspire anyone to get outdoors to discover and enjoy wildlife. The service, under the link “Get News,” is now live at VCE’s site:

I know, I know – this is 2014. It’s just another web site. Web sites aren’t news anymore. But, hey, news is news. And this Newsfeed is cool. How do I know? The Newsfeed is my idea. I developed the entire web site with VCE’s Kent McFarland and our amazing web designer, Gabe Halberg of Dadra Design.

Many of you already know VCE (where I’m a research associate and part-time writer and editor). Based in Norwich, VCE promotes wildlife conservation through scientific research and citizen engagement. Working in partnership with governments, conservation groups and other scientists, VCE conducts field work from Canada to South America. VCE also recruits volunteer “citizen naturalists” to help monitor wildlife.

The Newsfeed will take readers to the frontiers of wildlife biology and nature appreciation. This week’s news items include, for example, the arrival of Snowy Owls to the Northeast, a “Field Guide to Hunting Season,” and new research about a fungus that threatens to wipe out salamanders across the U.S. VCE’s Newsfeed, which is part of a complete redesign of the group’s web site, also offers easy access to other wildlife resources:

  • Outdoor Radio, VCE’s monthly program on wildlife, produced with Vermont Public Radio, can be heard on-demand at the site.
  • VCE’s Blog features regular updates from the group’s biologists working in Vermont, Canada, the Caribbean, and as far as South America.
  • An Events Calendar highlights public lectures, outdoor activities and natural history events.

Although VCE is best known for research on birds, the group’s conservation biologists also support Vermonters who enjoy any “watchable wildlife.” In a project called the Vermont Atlas of Life, VCE, with the public’s help, is creating a free, online library – with maps, photos and data – of virtually every living thing in the state.

Fertility and Flight in a Winter Moth

operophtera-bruceataNote: Here’s an encore performance of my blog post and independent film about moths you’ll find in the woods this chilly month.

In the angled daylight of November, a moth crossed my path in barren woods. Yeah, a moth, in the cold – a lesson in adaptation, fertility, and feminine sacrifice going by the name Bruce Spanworm.

As a caterpillar, Bruce Spanworm (Operophtera bruceata) is one of the inchworms, a member of the large moth family called Geometridae (which means “earth-measuring”).  As an adult, Brucie is not particularly showy. Its forewings, about 1.5 inches across, are dull gray with dark flecking, and its hindwings are even less dramatic. But who needs pizzazz when you’ve got the audacity to fly around in winter.

By now virtually all our moths and butterflies no longer live as gossamer-winged adults. Instead, they’re overwintering as either eggs, caterpillars, or pupae (a cocoon in the case of a moth). But walk through deciduous woods in November, and Bruce Spanworm or a relative called Fall Cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria) will most likely be your companion, even fluttering among snowflakes into December. These moths are also called Hunter’s Moths because they fly in the company of deer hunters.

We normally think of moths as ectothermic (or, more commonly, by the confusing term “cold-blooded”), which means they depend on environmental heat sources in order to fire up their metabolism, including their flight muscles. It’s the reason most insects fly in summer.

So how is it that Bruce Spanworm is such a hearty iconoclast? Why does it fly when warmth and solar energy are in such short supply? Well, for one thing, insectivorous birds are also in short supply, most having left us by now for the tropics. So a moth that can fly when predators are fewer can presumably go about its business breeding (more on that later) with greater success.

Yet a cold-weather sex drive and avoiding getting eaten, while certainly important, aren’t enough for a moth to take flight in freezing temperatures. As it turns out, the male Bruce Spanworm, while dull in appearance, is buff; he’s a muscle-man. And his flight muscles perform in the cold.

One study by James Marden, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in 1995 in The Journal of Experimental Biology, determined that Bruce Spanworm’s flight muscles can generate greater force at lower temperatures than a comparative summer-flying moth.

But physique also plays a role. Bruce Spanworm has more muscle mass as a percentage of his total body weight compared to the summertime moth used in the study. Sure, he may be small, but like a welterweight boxer, ounce-for-ounce he’s formidable. Perhaps more importantly, Bruce has a low wing-loading, which is basically the total weight of the moth divided by the surface area of his wings. Our pal Bruce gets a lot of lift for each flap. This lowers the energy he needs to flutter around with the hunters in November, a crucial adaptation for an insect that relies on solar energy for flight. (As a Vermonter, I’ll point out that Vermont biologist Bernd Heinrich, my office mate at the University of Vermont, did amazing work on insect thermoregulation, including a 1985 paper on winter-flying moths. Bernd has contributed greatly to our knowledge of Bruce Spanworm and the thermodynamics of insects in general.)

operophtera-bruceata-kent-mcfarlandNone of this wing analysis applies to females. That’s because the females don’t fly. They don’t fly because they lack wings. Females, full of eggs, simply sit there on the trunks of trees and waft pheromones, chemical attractants, into the air to lure males for mating. In fact, one of the best ways to locate a female Bruce Spanworm is to look for a cluster of males fluttering over a spot on the tree trunk. It is a certain sign the boys are competing for a copulation with a flightless female. My pal Kent McFarland caught a pair in the act. Read Kent’s post about it.

The female Bruce Spanworm is essentially an egg vessel; her body cavity is packed with eggs – an average of 143, according to Marden’s study – rather than large internal organs or tissue. Were she to regain the ability to fly, to develop wings and wing muscles, a female Bruce Spanworm might have to lose some of her eggs. She can’t get something for nothing. She’s given up wings for greater fecundity – a greater ability to reproduce.

In the course of her evolution, the female Bruce Spanworm has traded flight for fertility.

Here’s my short indie film about all this called “Walking with Moths.”


Marden, J.H. 1995. Evolutionary adaptation of contractile performance in muscle of ectothermic winter-flying moths. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 198, 2087–2094.

The Last Dragonfly


Even after our first hard frost and our last soft serve, after you've raked your leaves and mounted your snow tires, after the warblers have abandoned us for the tropics and you yourself have abandoned notions of warmth, and even after this cold political season – even then a dragonfly of summer remains.

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A Halloween Dragon

Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) / © Bryan Pfeiffer
Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Nothing scary here – unless you’re a mosquito or some other small flying insect. Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina), which hunt and eat insects, range across the eastern US. They perch at the tips of low vegetation and twirl in the summer breezes like pennants. Pennant are among the few dragonflies whose wings are marked, sort of like butterflies. This is a female; males are orange and black. So if you’re a traditionalist about Halloween colors, here’s a Blackburnian Warbler. Read more

Vermont’s First Snowy Owl of Autumn


Reed Webster found this Snowy Owl in Westminster, Vermont, on October 25 – our first report of the season. The Arctic has come visiting a bit early this fall. When they do come, Snowys usually begin to arrive here in New England by mid to late November.

But more Snowy Owls may be in our future. My quick look at an eBird map reveals that Snowys are already showing up elsewhere south of their breeding range (those blue and red markers on the map below). Notable is a report from the Isle of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast on August 4. August 4!

Reed returned the next day and didn’t relocate the owl. But we should all start looking for white out there. As this map suggests, a good place to begin is near big bodies of water. To get you in the mood, here’s my essay in Aeon Magazine about finding humility during last winter’s owl invasion. And thanks to Reed for his image!


The Last Monarch


HERE IS YOUR LAST GASP OF SUMMER. Yep, most of the Monarchs are long gone – off with the winds to Mexico. But I’ve encountered America’s favorite butterfly here in Vermont as late as October 31 and along the Maine coast as late as December 1. So keep watching.

These late southbound stragglers may never make it to wintering sites in Mexico. Nectar sources along the way become scarce this late. And weather can present an obstacle. Where they end up, we’re not entirely sure. But we now find Monarchs over-wintering and wandering in the southeastern U.S. And it seems that some are wintering farther north than ever –  life on a warming planet. (Of course, western Monarchs still winter in California.)

My two photos here came from Monhegand Island, Maine, on September 25. (I tried to get flight shots – with limited success.) Monhegan was lousy with Monarchs this year – a delightful close to a dismal season for our famous butterfly. The wintering poplulation last year plunged to its lowest levels ever recorded. We might yet see Monarchs rebound a bit. These are insects, after all, capable of big population swings.

Even so, biologists who study Monarchs say they now need the protections offered (sometimes) by the Endangered Species Act. Read more

Bob Spear (1920-2014)


Consider everything you know about the past half-century of birdwatching in Vermont. Long before your field guides and checklists, before bird apps and atlases, before nature centers and eBird, before VINS and VCE, there was Bob Spear.

On the long, green path of Vermont’s conservation movement you will find authors and intellectuals, farmers and environmentalists, men with outsized legacies that remain with us in the wild even though the conservationists themselves are now gone: George Perkins Marsh, Zadock Thompson, James P. Taylor, and Hub Vogelmann, to name a few.

Now another great conservationist has passed. Bob Spear, bird carver, educator, and soft-spoken field naturalist, died yesterday, October 19, 2014, in the company of his friends, family and, although we weren’t there with him, the community of people whose lives he touched and changed.

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The 2014 Snow Goose Scoop


The snows of autumn begin.

Snow geese are once again moving through Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont. Follow the migration on my new page: THE 2014 SNOW GOOSE SCOOP.

Get the latest reports on goose counts. Read about why snow geese no longer gather in the numbers we enjoyed during the 1980s and 1990s. You’ll also find range maps, articles, and other resources on the biology and ecology of snow geese.

You’ll even find help identifying the rare Ross’s Goose among the honking blizzard of white.

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Sunrise Now


Sunrise minutes ago from my office in downtown Montpelier, Vermont.

That's the Trinity United Methodist Church in the foreground and the First Baptist Church of Montpelier in the background. I was standing near the Unitarian Church.

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The Second Sunrise: A Final Monhegan Migration Report


He flashed yellow like an autumn sugar maple. When he launched from the meadow, the sun rose a second time over Monhegan Island. And as we left the island Monday for a wild boat ride, this star of fall migration – a young male Yellow-headed Blackbird – was still flying sorties and issuing his kuh-duck flight calls to the departing birdwatchers.

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